Care and Feeding

My Daughter Is a Mean Girl

My bright and clever 9-year-old loves to be unkind. How do I stop her cruel behavior?

A young girl with a mean and disgusted look on her face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

My 9-year-old daughter takes great pleasure in being unkind. She is enthusiastically rude and has comebacks for days. She’s very bright and crafts incredible insults. Her easiest targets are her two younger sisters, but she doesn’t discriminate (and at school, she is social and friendly).

We are doing All the Things to try to address the issue: She goes to therapy (primarily for support—thankfully, she has no trauma to resolve); we have family meetings, one-on-one time, journals, and “family norms.” When asked, she says that being unkind “feels good when I’m mad.” And why is she mad? “Nothing in this whole world is fair.” She’s right! Nothing is fair, but you can’t be mean. I know that she must be unhappy in her little heart to behave this way, and I trust her therapist to be on my team in lovingly nurturing her. But this shit is getting old.

I want there to be consequences. As it stands, we ask her to leave the room when she’s being mean or rude. It’s no trouble for me to tell her, “I don’t speak to people who are rude to me,” but I worry about her sisters. How much punishment is appropriate here?

—Ready to Fight Back

Dear RFB, 

It sounds like your baby is hurting and I hope that between your family efforts and the therapist visits that you’re able to figure out exactly why that is so that she can stop hurting the people who love her the most. Before I answer your question, I’d like to suggest that you find some age-appropriate comedic material (sitcoms, stand-up specials, movies, books, etc.) to encourage her to nurture that formidable wit and to learn how to use it for good, not evil.

As far as consequences go, please also continue to talk to your daughter about the emotional toll that her words take on her siblings and on you. She needs to hear that she can’t redistribute her emotional pain through her insults and all her cruel actions do is just bring you all in to wallow in her anger with her.

Punishments, when appropriate, should be tailored to the nature of the “crime.” A sassy comeback to an innocent question may cost 15 minutes of screen time, whereas a brutal takedown of one of her siblings might beg a full day, or more, without her favorite devices. Try to be as consistent as possible with how you mete out these penalties so that she begins to truly understand the connection between her actions and the consequences she faces as a result.

You may also explore positive reinforcement. Keep track of how long she goes between nasty comments and incentivize (not to any great excess, of course) periods of kind behavior. For example, perhaps a full Saturday without an infraction can merit her the ability to select the night’s dinner. It may seem unfair to the other children, but it sounds like her nasty attitude is a problem that they’d all like to see solved (and you can utilize a parallel or similar system with any issues they may be struggling with at home, at school, or otherwise). All the best to you. I hope your little girl finds peace soon.

—Jamilah